Two years ago Lucy Townsend was a busy businesswoman running The Greyhound on The Test, a successful hotel and restaurant in Stockbridge, starting up Wilds, a catering business, and investing in Hampshire bakery the Hoxton Bakehouse. She was also mother of a small son, with her long-term partner Alex Lewis.
Then one day it all changed.
In November 2013, Alex collapsed and was rushed to intensive care. What he had thought was ordinary flu turned out to be an aggressive flesh-eating virus, leading to septicaemia. The following months would bring multiple operations, with Alex finally losing all of his limbs in addition to his lips, and requiring re-constructive surgery. There has been ample news coverage of his story – just Google his name. A Trust has been set up in his name and a documentary is being made. But what of his partner, now fiancée, Lucy, who remained by his side through it all, while still somehow managing to be a mother and keeping her businesses afloat? Here, in Lucy’s words, is her side of the story, the lessons learned from her experiences and the challenges she faces today.
On Alex today
He’s very good. He’s working with the NHS at the moment because they’ve stopped prosthetics. It’s a new challenge but it’s a challenge that is right. Some poor person is going to have to make the decision of whether to give Alex prosthetics or someone cancer treatment. It’s a lot of money to give one individual. But we’re lucky to have the NHS. An independent film-maker has been filming Alex since the beginning of his illness, for a documentary during the past 18 months. Channel 4 picked it up and it’s coming out in January. It shows everything from start to finish, the operations, having his limbs removed everything.
I’ve been in hospitality for the last 20 years. I was a chef in London, and then I had Miller’s collection, a number of inns in Hampshire. I sold them to have a family. Then the Greyhound came on the market about two years ago and Alex didn’t speak to me for two weeks when I told him I was purchasing it because he knew that once I got back into it full time, that would be it. It ended up being the best thing – Alex is from Stockbridge originally so didn’t want to come back but the community has been so amazing. Alex does interior and furniture design, and has done a lot of the interior, even while he’s been ill. He’s just finished completing the cottage next door. He’s the sensible one; he’s far from interested in the day-to-day running and hospitality.
Then I launched Wilds, which is the outside catering business. For the last five years people had been asking me to do outside catering, weddings and things. Over the last six months we had to make a decision to take it seriously, and create a separate business for it and that’s going very well. We also have investment in the Hoxton Bakehouse, a bakery, which is also doing incredibly well.
When I had five different inns I was going from place to place dealing with staff problems, whereas with this it’s all based around the Greyhound, so my offices are here and at the end of the day we always end up back here. We start our day here, even if we’re doing a wedding. So I feel like I’m not travelling as much or doing as much as I did before.
On being a partner through adversity
Without a doubt we are a normal couple, the only difference is that he has no limbs. I am not involved with running the Trust: that’s Alex’s thing. He has a lady running that. Alex needed that, a part-time job two days a week, and the other days getting back into day work. If I were involved in that (the Trust) and also involved with his care, it would all just be too much. If I can I attend things, but it’s nice that it’s Alex’s job and when I come home at night he’ll tell me what they’re doing, and they are getting up to a lot, they’re all over the place.
Alex does everything with technology. The first couple of months after losing his arms his only aim were to be able to use his iPad again and we tried to figure it out. Voice recognition wouldn’t pick up Alex’s voice because of him losing his lips. We went through hundreds of styluses, using Velcro and tying things on… anyway he can now use his iPad perfectly. Now the diary pops up every minute, and he’s good at communicating what he’s up to and links his diary up to mine.
He makes sure he’s home in time for our son every day to meet him after school, he missed a year and a half of their relationship because he was in hospital so he very much wants to be a part of that.
I was lucky, I had lots of people to stand in and help. I have two best friends. While I lived with Alex for six months in hospital, one would pick up my son and I never had to think about, in six months of how my car was being filled up with petrol or where my clothes were coming from. They just let me deal with my business and Alex, and they dealt with everything else. So I was lucky to have that support – lots of people don’t have that.
I have business partners who financially back me at the Greyhound and with my other projects. I said to them if they felt the business was declining because of my issues/emotions/private life they must step in and take over until I sorted myself out, and I wouldn’t be offended. But they didn’t, they were a great support. If I needed something, or wanted time off or to go away, my team were fantastic.
I’ve got a great bunch of friends. Alex is an only child and my parents live away so we’ve got no family where we are. Hospitality’s a strange thing, it’s one big network, everyone knows you and all of a sudden with Alex’s Trust everyone wanted to do things, everyone wanted to hear about prosthetics and try to get them for Alex.
When he got ill we didn’t know he was going to lose his limbs. But we’re quite strong people so we found out all the info and we’d have days where we’d write all the positive and negatives. It sounds dreadful but it was a nice experience because you find out who really loves and cares about you and we had a really intense time together that we’d never really had before. We laughed a lot, so it was nice.
I realised I was a bit of a control freak beforehand and felt that my businesses couldn’t run without me. What it’s given me is balance, before it was all ‘work work work.’ The best thing is that I spend more time at home now, I’m not needed everyday. Work is still important and when I work, I work but when I’m off I really switch off.
Advice for people with loved ones going through illness/incapacitation
Just try to stay one step ahead of the person that’s ill, that’s what I did. Every stage he’s at, or what he’s going to go through next, I studied and found out what Alex needed and what I needed to do. I didn’t listen to too many people; everyone was telling me how I needed my home adapted and what Alex would need but I just listened to him and what he wanted. Alex did not want to have a home that looked like a disabled person’s house. He wanted it to be a home.
On getting married
Every day since I’ve known Alex for (eight years) I asked him to marry me and he said, “No, no, no.” When he was in intensive care and very poorly and the nurse said he might have brain damage, they asked me to ask him a question. I said, “Will you marry me?” and he said, “No,” and I said, “He doesn’t have brain damage, he’s fine.”
He asked me to marry him when he was really ill, so we’re getting married in a few months’ time.
When I grow up…
I’d like to be a Michelin inspector.
For further information about Alex’s Trust please visit: www.alex-lewis.co.uk
For further information about The Greyhound please visit: thegreyhoundonthetest.co.uk